THE LEGAL PROCESS
A civil lawsuit is one accountability measure for police. However, a major flaw of our court system is its inadequacy to restore immeasurable loss.13 Litigation more easily provides monetary awards than system changes to stop misconduct.
Further, lawsuits can continue for years, are expensive, and add stress to an already painful experience. For example, the court process often requires the harmed family to endure questions by police lawyers, who may dishonor the person who died to win. Families may also be asked to give over personal devices, reveal social media activity, and other intrusive asks.
Finally, this is the civil process – any other penalties against the police require criminal charges or workplace discipline, which are different processes. For these reasons and others, we want you to have a realistic understanding of the civil legal process.14
Before you can make some legal claims based in state law, you must have already sent a notice letter to the government within one year of the incident (which – if properly done – would give you three total years to bring your lawsuit). For details regarding this notice letter, please read “Important Due Dates” on page 6.
The flow chart below shows key points in the civil legal process, but please understand this is a simplified generalization, and few cases progress exactly this way.
1. You file a complaint in federal or state court15 and your complaint must be “served” to the police agency according to the court rules.
- The complaint must state all the facts important to your case, name all the parties involved, and list all the legal claims you intend to prove in your case. We strongly urge you to get an attorney for your lawsuit to ensure you the best chance of success.
- Writing a complaint is very difficult – your entire case could be thrown out of court if the complaint is not drafted correctly, and legal claims are complex.
- There are important differences between filing in state or federal courts (See footnote 15.).
2. The police will likely ask the court to dismiss your case through a written request called a “motion.”
- You will have a chance to reply to that motion, and usually the case doesn’t progress until the judge decides whether to grant or deny the motion.
3. - 5. If the case survives motions, the police will reply to your complaint, fully explaining why they haven’t harmed you or broken laws. At this point, you and the police have a clear idea of the core arguments of the case; this begins a research period to detail case strategy, and both sides will submit requests for documents (discovery) and record key witness statements under oath (depositions) to use as evidence in the case.
6. The court will usually require mediation at some point to determine whether the case can be resolved without a costly trial.
7. The critical phase of pre-trial preparation and trial occurs. Both you and police will organize all the laws and evidence into a cohesive, straightforward argument for the judge and jury.
8. After trial, the jury will decide what evidence are facts, and the judge will decide which laws apply, and award to the prevailing party.
This process is a very broad overview and does not include every stage of every lawsuit. Again, we strongly recommend you consult an attorney who is licensed to practice in Maryland courts and may give you the best chance for success.
GET A LAWYER: CIVIL
Finding the best person to represent you is critical. You should shop for legal services the way you would shop for any other service, like medical or tax services: choose the professional who is the best fit for you.
Beware of legal professionals who baldly promise or guarantee a certain result. You should also be clear about an attorney’s hourly fee amounts, payment structure, and the stages of the legal process the attorney agrees to complete for the amount you pay. If you are unclear on fees, you may risk your attorney withdrawing from the case due to nonpayment.
Ultimately, you should consider the following:
- Are you confident the attorney has the skills and experience to handle your case?
- Do you feel comfortable communicating with the attorney and find them responsive to your questions?
- Do you sense the attorney understands your perspective and experience? Or, alternately, does the attorney appear to operate out of concerning presumptions or bias about you, police, or anything else?
- Are you clear on what the attorney charges hourly, and how much you must pay them to continue working on your case?
Finally, understand you are only represented by an attorney after you have both signed a retainer agreement – a contract between you and the attorney. The retainer agreement will probably answer many of the questions above.
We do not recommend people file police lawsuits without an attorney for many reasons. The judicial legal process is complicated and privileges people who are legally trained and practiced in court process and laws. While it is possible to represent yourself, it is very difficult to successfully bring a claim against the police without formal legal training and experience. Even the most experienced attorneys are challenged by the barriers to winning police misconduct cases.
If you are unable to retain an attorney and must represent yourself, the People's Law Library of Maryland has detailed recommendations you may find helpful. People representing themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney are known as pro se (“PRO-say") litigants. However, we recognize a critical flaw of the American legal system is the high costs of legal services and relatively short due dates for most people.
Understand that filing a lawsuit is a significant undertaking even with representation. Filing your own briefs and appearing for all hearings is a substantial time commitment which may be disruptive in other areas of your life. Proceeding pro se should only be done after long, careful consideration; the footnote contains additional resources for pro se litigants.16
13 The most common remedies from civil suits are listed and described below:
-Preliminary relief: temporary court orders to prevent further harm until a lawsuit is resolved.
-Damages: money ordered for loss, injury, pain, restitution intended to restore harm.
-Injunctive relief: an order to do or stop doing something to cease the harm.
-Declaratory relief: an order “declaring” that a law or right was violated without money or action.
14 Cornell Law School offers Legal Information Institute at their website, which is a free online resource to understand and research laws and courts, including the civil legal process.
15 Generally, Maryland courts hear cases about the Maryland constitution and laws. State cases may continue into federal courts where there is an issue about federal law or the U.S. Constitution. For more information, please see the U.S. Courts website, Comparing Federal & State Courts.
16 If you choose to represent yourself, here are additional online resources:
-Pro Se Document Forms
-Civil rights complaint
-Complaint in civil action
-Consent to receive notices of electronic filing